How do you deal with someone who refuses to get a will because it’s ‘ghoulish’? How do you respond to the narcissistic person who says ‘I don’t want to think about what happens after I die’?
When dear old mom went to the Great Insane Asylum In The Sky she left her affairs as if she were 25 and had gone up to the store for a loaf of bread. No will, no power of attorney, no funeral arrangements and a stack of unpaid bills. It was up to her survivors (funny word, that) to sort it out. She chose to put the burden on her children; one last punishment.
Here’s the thing about the will: I used to drive myself crazy thinking I could reason with her. I’d have had better luck teaching my dog a card trick. It wasn’t ignorance. It was utter vindictiveness. “If the tea party goes on without me you’ll have to clean up my mess!!!”
So we did.
A lawyer was retained. One brother and I cleaned out her house. The taxes were paid. Within a year probate closed.
There was one problem: What was to be done with the body?
My mother died in a Phoenix hospital in July of 2005, and I was the one who pulled the plug.
I had been in close contact with the doctor assigned to her case. He called me the day everything we owned was being loaded into a moving truck to relocate to Northern California for my husband’s job. She was in a coma after a pulmonary embolism and there was no hope of her regaining consciousness. What did I want to do? Mind you this was just a week after my mother-in-law died. I’ve always felt my mother willed herself to die then, so that she could be the center of attention – even in death.
I remember standing on the back porch awash in the bright summer heat, the phone cord stretched as far as it would go, watching my belongings being carried out the front door, and listening to a man I’d never met describing in precise detail how my mother was dying. Oh, and did I want to keep her hooked up to a ventilator to prolong her agony?
I think I was kinder to her than she deserved. I told them to give her as much morphine as possible, pull the life support and to let her die peacefully.
When I think about that afternoon it was like trying to use a kaleidoscope as a magnifying glass.
After she died one of my brothers went to put a wooden stake in her heart. Wait. No. One of them went down to identify and take care of the body. She left the decision and the cost of her final disposition up to us. Although she was a baptized Catholic, we had her cremated. If she wanted something different she had years to make those plans.
Don’t speak ill of the dead.
It’s the command given to anyone who dares to talk about the deeds of the dearly departed.
Don’t speak ill of the dead.
Your feelings still don’t matter. Even in death your tormentor can silence you through shame.
Don’t speak ill of the dead.
Even if it’s true.
My experience with that hated phrase (aside from brutally hilarious news rooms) is with a few of my mother’s acquaintances, and a handful of distant relatives we got Christmas cards from the 1970s.
‘Don’t speak ill of the dead’ was what they invoked when hearing why there would be no funeral.
You see, after she died I agreed to call the few people in her phone book to let them know.
“Why?” asked in a tone used when you kick a puppy.
“Well… Ahhh… None of us want or will come to a celebration of her life.”
“B-b-but… She’s your Mother!! She deserves at least that much respect.”
“Look, (insert indignant person’s name here), she wasn’t a very nice person. None of my 5 brothers were talking to her when she died, some of them for years. I was the only one who would have anything to do with her at the end.”
“B-b-but… How could you?”
“How can I put this? She was toxic. She beat us mercilessly when we were children, and terrorized us as adults.”
“Don’t speak ill of the dead.”
There were one or two sympathetic souls who were floored. But they were able to accept the fact that anyone who had 6 middle-aged children that vehemently opposed to a service memorializing their life might not have been a very nice person.
The rest, however, were quite judgmental. Interestingly enough, not one was worried about the religious aspect of it. They were all horrified that we wouldn’t ‘do the right thing’. No matter that she hadn’t done the right thing since the day she gave birth to my eldest brother. And most were people I had never met, just some stranger at the other end of a long-distance line. Never mind that they would never come to her funeral if we’d had one. And there I was, trying to defend to someone I couldn’t pick out of a police line-up with a gun to my head about why I wouldn’t hold a funeral for a person who tormented me from the day I was born.
I could have lied, and said there would be a small service for the family, and no one but me would have known the difference. But, I didn’t want to lie anymore. I was really tired of covering for her.
So, I told the truth; which wasn’t well received. ‘It was a different time’ was the excuse offered. That always made me gag a bit. The conversation would end with, “I’m sorry for your loss.” It was a phrase for which I never had a good reply.
I remember the day my mother arrived in San Jose. It was still beastly hot, but not so much like looking through a kaleidoscope. The doorbell rang, the dog barked. It was a return receipt package. I didn’t realize what it was, at first. Then I noticed the return address was from a funeral home in Arizona. I can’t describe the look of abject horror on the mail carrier’s face when I remarked, “Oh, hey! That’s my mother’s ashes. I wondered where they were.” The postman couldn’t get that box out of his hands fast enough. He shoved them into my hands as I was still signing, and they tumbled to the ground. The postman blanched visibly and looked at me in even greater horror. He grabbed his crucifix, made the sign of the cross, and beat a hasty retreat when I said, “Dude, it’s OK. She’s dead. She didn’t feel it.”
I had no idea what to do with my mother’s ashes. They were in a sealed quart sized can, packed inside the box in which it came. I walked around our new place in San Jose trying to figure out where to put them. I felt like I had a plastic bag full of dog shit I was trying to figure out where to put. Actually, dog shit is easier to throw away. I wouldn’t have her ashes in my house. Not even the garage. Finally, it came to me: The potting shed.
One of the things I liked best about the place in San Jose was the garden. You could put anything in the ground and it would grow. One of the best things about the garden was the potting shed. It was as far from the house as you could get, and waterproof.
I put her ashes out there on the farthest top shelf I could.
Now and then I would joke to my closest friends how I was going to go visit mom in the potting shed.
Every so often, when I was transplanting something, I would look up at the box on the shelf and say, ”Hey, you miserable bitch. How’s it going? Hot enough for you? What? No complaints? That’s a first.” Sometimes I wouldn’t be as charitable
That went on for a couple of years.
1939 – Mom, bottom left
Here’s the thing: Years before she died my mother told me about her burial plot in Sarnia, Canada that had been paid for by the grandparents who raised her in the 1930s. After my father died, and was buried in a McCatholic cemetery, she made me promise many, many times that I would return her to her home in Sarnia. It was yet another of her lies.
There was no plot. There never had been. The only plot was in her mind. It was yet another of her fantastic lies, and one I found out via long distance day rate when I called the cemetery in Canada. They had no record of there ever having been a plot purchased for her.
After doing everything from pulling the plug, to cleaning out her house-of-hoarding, I was left with her ashes, and the unappealing task of how to dispose of them without honoring her or being a complete dick.
As the years went by I asked her ashes how thing were going less and less.
Eventually, I stopped remembering that mom was in the potting shed. As I went about my life – finally rid of her judgements and cruelty – I learned to enjoy the peace.
We moved to San Francisco late in the summer of 2007, as the world economy was just beginning to shit the bed. It was another hot, hectic moving day, but finally the movers were lumbering their way up the peninsula to our new house by the beach. We were making a final run-through, picking up the last odds and ends, Richard was anxious to head out and be there when the truck arrived. I told him I’d finish up here, and meet him up there. I gathered odd bits of trash in a garbage bag, and checked behind doors, assuring myself the house was empty.
But there was still one more thing to deal with: Mom in the potting shed.
I stood in the suffocating July heat of the potting shed watching swirls of dust illuminated by the sun coming in through the window, and finally reached for the still-sealed box with the can holding my mother’s ashes. As I held the heavy box in my hands I knew I simply couldn’t bring them to our new home. Yes, there was a lovely a potting shed there, too. It was even bigger than this one, but there was simply no room in it for her. I wanted no more ashes or commitments to crazy dead people.
I knew what needed to be done.
We watched the last of our things get transferred from the truck into our new place, and as the moving van pulled away I unloaded my car. Finally there was nothing left, but the box with the can holding the ashes.
It was only 10 blocks to Ocean Beach, and we bought a bottle of wine at the corner bodega. In the parking lot of the beach I opened the box with Richard’s knife, took out the can, and looked at it for the first time. It looked like an unmarked paint can, but was much heavier than any paint would ever be.
I remember the sun was setting, with yellow, orange and white shafts. There were people setting bonfires. I didn’t know what to think as I walked toward the ocean.
After a few pulls on the wine bottle I gestured with it, and said, “Well, here’s a fine place to spend eternity.” I took a few more swigs, and used the bottle opener on my key ring to pry the lid off of the can. After a few tries it popped off.
Inside were the burnt remains of an evil, hurtful being that tortured her children and alienated everyone around her. I stared at what remained for a long while, feeling many, many things – but guilt-free relief was what won out.
Finally, I took my shoes off and went to the water’s edge. I watched the waves play in and out, and the sun as it headed towards the horizon.
I threw my arm out in a sweeping motion. The ashes made a comma in the wet sand. I thought of the commas after zeros, and of all the money my parents had stolen from me. A wave came in and washed the sand clean. Just like that the comma and the imaginary zeros were gone.
I threw more ashes, and made more commas. More waves came in and washed away the answers to so many questions.
Finally, the can that came in the box that sat in the potting shed was empty.
After a long sigh I said, “You’re welcome. For everything.”
Richard came up and silently offered the wine bottle, his arm sliding around my shoulder as much in comfort as solidarity. I took a few pulls, and silently congratulated myself for never having soiled my relationship with the man I loved by even introducing him to someone who tried to destroy any happiness that found its way to my life.
The waves crashed, the gulls called, and the sun was in its last brilliant stage of setting.
Mom had left the potting shed, and I was finally free.
Liberation – at long last!
In the final rays of the setting sun I saw metal glinting where I had thrown my mother’s ashes. I picked up a piece of stainless steel out of the wet sand: It was her ID tag from the mortuary – and the date of her death was wrong.
I laughed so hard wine shot out my nose.
The Circle had closed, and the woman who forgot what day her only daughter was born (Yes, really) shuffled off this mortal coil unmarked and unmourned, the victim of an administrative mistake. It was a perfectly fitting end for a woman with a bottomless need for attention and perfection.
The Universe has one hell of a sense of humor, and once in a great while we’re lucky enough to see some asshole get exactly what they deserve.